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Sitting in an IHOP in East Dallas on a dreary day, just over a month removed from the death of her older brother in Iraq, Kristy Kruger pops a couple of Prozac and stares at the ceiling as the questions and answers become inherently uncomfortable. She wants to talk about the future, but she is caught in a bleak here and now.
The Dallas native and celebrated singer-songwriter fidgets in her seat and pokes fun at the restaurant's choice of music, anything to deflect the cruel reality.
"My brother was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in a very traditional military funeral," says Kruger, sticking with the facts, finding comfort in the routine. "I was walking with my cousin, and I thought about Eric's birthday and what a hard day that was going to be."
Eric Kruger would have been 41 on January 12. In a loving, family gesture, part tribute and part therapy session, Kristy has decided to play a memorial concert for her fallen brother with proceeds going to his widow and four children (the youngest, Christian, was born on Veteran's Day).
"The only thing any of us would be doing on his birthday is sitting at home, thinking about Eric," says Kruger. "I think the best thing I could do would be to keep playing music, to play every night for him."
It was only this past summer that Kruger decided to seek wider renown in Los Angeles, just after releasing her acclaimed effort, Songs from a Dead Man's Couch, and being chosen best female singer at the Dallas Observer Music Awards. She had made some inroads on the West Coast: Her most recent effort received an Independent Music Award as the Americana album of the year, and Kristy has been composing music for films as well as working with Murry Hammond of the Old 97's.
At the same time, Eric, a lieutenant colonel and career military man, accepted a new assignment: out of Afghanistan and into Iraq, to be installed as a new regiment commander in Baghdad. He was in Iraq only one day. While riding in a Humvee with the outgoing senior officer, the vehicle struck a roadside bomb, and both men were killed instantly.
It was during a recent trip to New York that she received the terrible news of her brother's passing. She drove without sleep back to Dallas. "It was the saddest day of my life," says Kruger. She came back to her father's home in Garland to mourn and found her only solace in her art.
"Nothing is ever going to take away the grief," says Kruger. "My brother loved music, and I found that I couldn't do anything else but play music."
Kruger composed "Goodbye, Brother" in tribute to Eric and played it at the funeral. "Playing that song in those circumstances was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," she says.
Kristy speaks of her brother as a daughter might speak of her father. She recalls his huge collection of compact discs, his unending energy and his abundant sense of humor.
Last year, Eric brought Kristy a burqa from Afghanistan. Kristy wore the burqa at her brother's promotion ceremony, as much to poke fun at her own feminist leanings as to bond with her brother on her own terms.
Separated by 10 years, Eric and Kristy were never too close. He was already serving in Korea when she was in her teens. Their connection came through letters and e-mails and the knowledge that he would always make his way home. Eric was a fourth-generation military officer, the son of a Vietnam veteran, a natural leader and a patriot.
"Ever since I was 14, Eric would come back from everywhere fine," says Kristy.
Eric's calm demeanor and steadfast confidence provided Kristy with a strength she often found lacking in herself. Once, after a traffic accident where Kristy was seriously injured, Eric comforted his sister and assured her that she would be fine, speaking reassuring words as he wiped up his sister's blood with a T-shirt.
"The accident was the perfect encapsulation of our relationship," says Kruger. "I was the melodramatic drama queen and he was the 'everything is going to be all right' guy."
Eric Kruger was seemingly invincible, coming back from each tour of duty with hardly a scratch, returning to Texas each time as the fearless adventurer.
"I never knew a time when my brother was afraid," says Kristy. "His last e-mail said that he was excited about being in Iraq."
Excitement soon turned to tragedy, as Eric Kruger became one of the highest-ranking officers to perish in the four-year conflict. Kristy became one of an increasing number of Americans directly touched by the miserable reality of war.
"You look at people and you tell them, 'I lost my brother in Iraq.' Me, my family," says Kristy. "My mom and my dad lost a child. My nephews lost their father. My sister-in-law lost her husband." For Kristy, the war was no longer some abstraction. She became part of a heartbreaking minority.
"I was told that one-tenth of one percent of Americans have actually been personally confronted with a death in the immediate family," says Kristy. Such statistics are hardly a comfort, however, and Kristy's thoughts turned to Sara, her brother's widow, and the four children.